That You Haven't Been Told
Trump's 2024 campaign for president poses a profound moral hazard for every American
Nearly three years after leaving office, former President Donald Trump has been met by escalating legal perils after a lifetime of avoiding accountability for his many crimes and transgressions. He has been found guilty of sexual abuse in a civil trial; is facing the dissolution of his main business in New York in another civil suit; has been charged for falsifying business records showing hush-money payments to a porn star; is under indictment in two other jurisdictions for attempting to overturn the 2020 election; and has been indicted in yet another jurisdiction for stealing sensitive classified information. These legal actions are not part of a grand plot against the former President, nor are they the consequences of misguided choices, borne, nevertheless, out of good intentions. Donald Trump is a bad man. He would like to destroy the constitutional order of the United States and replace it with an authoritarian regime. He is a liar and a fraud and a rapist. He is venal, lazy, superficial, grasping, impulsive, infantile, cowardly, cruel. One could diagnose him out of the DSM-V with malignant narcissism, but a simpler judgement suffices: he is evil. The organizing principle of Trump’s politics is not an ideology or certain coherent policy views – it’s his personality disorder. The odds are tolerable that he could be re-elected President next year.
When trying to comprehend his rise and persistence in American politics, lines from the opening monologue of Richard III come to mind:
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, Have no delight to pass away the time, Unless to see my shadow in the sun And descant on mine own deformity: And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
But Trump is not Shakespeare’s version of the last Plantagenet. He possesses a feral shrewdness, but entirely lacks Richard’s elaborate scheming, his cleverness or his talent for arch, self-aware soliloquies. Trump lies constantly, and yet he makes no attempt to deceive anyone as to his malevolent character. His supporters are not taken in by his evil as if it were a scam, so much as they clamor to be anointed in its foul stew. This remains true even where many of them lead otherwise honorable lives.
Despite the floor-to-ceiling media coverage of all things Trump, the man himself is more a carnival grotesque than an object of genuine fascination. The discourse around Trump is similarly disposable, replete though it is with entertaining analysis, posturing, recriminations, truths, falsehoods, memes, jokes, pronouncements, admonishments. What matters is his following: why have millions of Americans been co-opted by the cult of Trump?
There are many theories about this.
The simplest is that there’s a reactionary cultural bubble and the talking heads at Fox News and other outlets in the right-wing media ecosystem, along with the MAGA junta, have been feeding misinformation to citizens in this bubble. They fill people’s heads with skewed narratives about the wickedness of liberals and the glories of Trump and his confederates – because it’s profitable. This story is about manipulation and money, and it puts the onus entirely on right-wing elites to clean up their act. One can find this theme in almost any liberal or Never-Trump critique of the MAGA movement. There’s something to it, but the idea doesn’t fully account for Trump’s popularity compared to other aspiring cult leaders.
There is a contrarian view, a mirror image: “liberal elites” are pushing a “woke” ideology at war with “Western Civilization,” or, at least, at odds with decency and common sense. Contrarians lament the emphasis given to marginalized identities and the inversion of “traditional” or even “natural” hierarchies in the mainstream media and among elected officials and other institutional leaders. The reactionary subject might be radical feminism, or the “trans rights” movement, or Black Lives Matter protests, or “Antifa” or Joe Biden, but the particulars are, really, just a convenience for the expression of animus. The contrarian may not be keen on Trump himself, but credits his political success to the perfidy or fecklessness of the political Left and its supposed stranglehold on mainstream institutions. The contrarian set runs the gamut of cultural types: partisan hacks (Ben Shapiro, Rich Lowry), IDW weirdos (Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan), pseudo-lefties (Matt Taibbi, Russell Brand, Glenn Greenwald), anti-vaxxers (RFK Jr., Bret Weinstein), conservative intellectuals (Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule), anti-technology spiritualists (Paul Kingsnorth), aggrieved centrist bloggers (Andrew Sullivan, Wesley Yang), deranged billionaires (Peter Thiel, Elon Musk). Their outward differences mask the only difference among them: should society’s problems be attributed solely to the political left or is it a function of polarization, where leftist and rightist factions are equal offenders? The attitude evades a fundamental asymmetry between the opposed coalitions. It’s not that there aren’t things to critique about the Democratic Party or the most extreme “progressive” voices in the US and elsewhere, but the actual leaders of left-leaning mainstream institutions are mostly responsible people who make adult decisions; Trump and his followers, like angry children, want to burn our institutions to the ground.
Another hypothesis attributes the cultural bubble to a bottom-up process. In this telling, the culture in general has become puerile, full of prosperous, entitled people, who, bored by their safe, quiet lives, refuse the traditional standards of American civil society and act out in childish ways. Political leaders are crazy or craven because that’s what “the people” choose – to be entertained, to make their lives appear more exciting or important. Trumpism is just a right-wing version of this pattern. Comparisons with the fascism of 1930s Europe follow almost automatically. A good illustration of this view can found in the writings of Tom Nichols, a retired professor at the US Naval War College, in the The Atlantic and elsewhere (although Nichols’ arguments would land harder if his taste in music were not so jejune). This view is a plausible account for many specific behaviors, but it doesn’t tell us why these things are happening in this particular historical moment. The connection to the fascism of the 1930s is helpful in some ways, but it’s also facile, and to make it stick would require a more robust theory of historical phenomenology.
A “developmental” theory was advanced by philosopher Ken Wilber in the monograph, Trump In A Post-Truth World, published in early 2017. Wilber is long-time proponent of the Hegelian idea that people, societies, and other kinds of systems undergo characteristic stages of development for the kind of thing that they are. Because development in his framework requires the emergence of something new from the ashes of something old, social conflicts can often be read as clashes in values among stages of development played out by individuals who have evolved to different stages. Wilber posits that the pluralism of “progressives,” a positive and necessary development in human spiritual evolution, has been sidetracked by certain self-contradictions, and he hypothesizes that the Trumpist reaction is an evolutionary regression resulting from these contradictions. The resolution is an “integral” approach (this is his pet theoretical project). There is a lot of more detail that doesn’t need to be rehearsed in this essay, and a whole system of tortured color-coding that Wilber has borrowed from the “Spiral Dynamics” framework proposed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. I found this paper to be edifying, but also gawky and not focused enough on the choices that individuals have to make right now – there’s an election next year, wars in Ukraine and Gaza, another brewing in Taiwan, with climate change looming in the background.
We will argue here that, more than anything, the Trump phenomenon demands that Americans make choices, and that these choices are moral choices. These other ideas are worth keeping in mind, but the moral perspective matters most, we contend, and it can be established on an objective, descriptive basis. Because moral feeling is visceral and emotive, it’s easy to spew reproving blither with barely a thought – Trump’s immorality is obvious, for all that his partisans seek to deny it. But it’s just often as anything else such an impulse serves to rationalize unethical behavior, and so, rather than launching into a moral screed, we would pause and consider the proper role of moral judgements in political processes. This is the best way to understand what’s at stake.
Political institutions, and the legal frameworks that support them, are not inherently moral. We argued in a previous essay, The Ineluctable Person, that laws are linguistic constructs designed to order the obligations and the freedoms of action formally recognized among individuals and between individuals and the state. The institutions of the state exist to ensure these relationships’ integrity, insofar as they are public rather than private matters. Laws and public institutions can be arranged in any number of ways and their focus is procedure – the values of individuals or groups of people, these treat any and all procedural mechanisms as instruments for whatever ends are consistent with them. Values are how individuals orient themselves to the social world around them, and they are independent of public institutions as such. From the point of view of public institutions, values appear as interests that belong to one or more people governed by the institutions, and these interests motivate and animate their participation; but the primary concern of the institution is that its procedures are followed to the letter regardless of whose interests benefit. Inevitably, individuals, usually as affiliated with a group, have competing interests, and civil society requires a politics to mediate and produce eventual compromise and accommodation; as societies scale towards massive industrialized nations, politics becomes more formalized within institutions. Where politics fails to produce compromise, violence is inevitable, and, indeed, may be necessary.
We’ve briefly described a process of social competition among individuals with differing values which leads either to compromise or violent conflict. This process does not judge the values themselves (or the individuals), but only contemplates how social procedures embedded in political institutions produce social outcomes. Moral judgements come from these same values, and so, if we want moral judgements about anything to be sound, we need to look at how moral sensibilities arise directly from values rather than bemoaning the outcomes of political processes.
Values begin as something positive – I want X, or I like Y, or I choose to do Z. We’ve become accustomed to talking about values in ideological terms where our values are “beliefs,” as if the ideology encoded in some “belief” exhausted what a person could want or like or do without reflecting the character of the individual. A “belief” is a state of contingent knowledge, not a statement of value, and these two things only overlap where the individual is self-conscious and honestly wants to understand himself or herself better. Ideologies conflate values and beliefs; perhaps ideologies at their inception begin with some insight, but all too often they become reified, and linger as an impediment to self-knowledge. We would be better to treat values as applying to individuals in their own behavior, and to consider how individuals interact in social contexts and form normative expectations of each other. A collection of positive values, self-consciously understood and appropriately felt, whether individual or collective, might be called an ethos.
Moral judgments are negative in character. What is valued is not always attainable or achievable, and the alternative can constitute a threat that must be overcome. If I want X, but am presented with A, or I like Y, but have to suffer B, or I would choose to do Z, but am compelled to do C – what has been assigned a positive value is now disappointed or harmed. Again, these negative judgments apply not only to how individuals view their own experience and their own actions, but how they reckon everyone around them. Moral reasoning is ultimately a matter of consistency: is a behavior consistent with some embodied set of values or not? The essential immoral act is when the person who espouses an ethos, or is otherwise subject to it, repeatedly makes contrary choices. Because moral judgments are negative, and often seated within deep emotions, it can be hard to understand their actual content; for clarity, we would propose a three-part test, as follows:
An immoral act violates a contemporaneous individual value or social norm. There has to be a value which has been abrogated or injured before any moral consideration comes into play; what’s more, such a value must be internalized by an individual or treated as a norm in some social context. Values don’t float around invisible and unattached in the air; nor can they be so deeply unconscious as not to be recognizable in any form. This would seem obvious, but it becomes a problem where the values of people in different places or times are not congruent with one another – especially where they violate contemporary mores. A classic example is slavery. Until some time in the early- to mid-18th century, slavery had been absolutely commonplace in all kinds of societies, in all parts of the world. It was understood that it might suck to be a slave, but it would have been unusual for anyone to think of slaveholding as a grievous affront to moral rectitude. We can’t say, therefore, that it was immoral to own slaves in societies where individual autonomy was not generally valued, even if we now cringe at the awfulness of being an enslaved person. But we can affirm this moral taboo today where such values are held.
An immoral act is a choice. Immoral behavior can’t be inadvertent or accidental. It has to be chosen. People with impaired or undeveloped cognitive abilities are not fully in control of their decisions and therefore their actions don’t carry full moral weight. We accept that heinous acts by mentally ill persons don’t have the same moral valence as the same acts by those in full possession of their faculties. We allow for children to engage in behavior that would meet with harsh redress among adults.
An immoral act is not isolated, but follows from a pattern of behavior. An isolated decision not keeping in a person’s usual pattern of behavior does not have the same moral significance as one that conforms with a long history of similar decision-making. Our criminal legal system, for example, typically metes out less severe punishments to first-time offenders than to repeat offenders. Once in a while, tremendous moral weight is placed on a single horrific act, and our argument is that, even though no pattern of behavior can be established, in such cases we imagine (rightly or wrongly) that an inherent tendency has emerged which only didn’t have an opportunity to surface previously, and so the “pattern” had been a potentiality, permanent in that it will repeat itself under similar circumstances.
This test highlights some difficulties. It very much matters where values come from; even more so, we have to understand how, socially, certain values are accepted or enforced in certain times and places while others are ignored or rejected. The first answer that comes to people who really invest a lot of themselves into what’s moral and what’s not is that values are universal and fixed. We might hem and haw about edge cases and find tragedy, in the dramatic sense, where individuals are forced to weigh competing moral claims against their virtue, but the scheme of what should be valued is knowable and abiding in all times and in all places.
Universalism has several varieties. There are religious versions where one or more deified entities have determined what humans should and should not value, and any affront to their declaration will reap divine wrath. The proof of this usually requires some terrible event, but the authority to interpret events morally might come from a book, as in Christianity or Islam, or it could come from worn-in traditions passed down the generations, or, in certain cases, the pronouncements of some singular political figure. The religious impulse is often counterposed to a revolutionary pattern, which is just as insistent on its universality, but which sees its set of values embodied wholly in an exercise of power, or at least the revolutionary’s desire to exercise power. Values are revealed through some kind of historical analysis or simply “constructed” by the power-seeker. Marx is the classic voice of this view, but this kind of thinking also runs rampant in much “postmodern” academic literature. Although we tend associate the “revolutionary” outlook with the political left, reactionaries follow the same pattern. In fact, one of our themes is that the MAGA movement is revolutionary, not “conservative,” and is singularly pre-occupied with the supposed universality of its values; religion is often cited as justification, but reactionaries’ revealed motives are almost always power rather than piety.
We have the advantage now of possessing copious information about cultural practices across the world, and throughout the days and nights of humans’ long history. There are many, many, many different ways to organize a society, and equally many variations on what societies value. The same holds true for individuals: one man might place a lot of value on his wife and children, another on career advancement, another on his leisure time, and so forth; another clutch of men might put very little value on any of those things. There is no credible argument for a limited, universal set of human values – but societies and individuals do have to choose some things they value and these values may, in turn, preclude other unchosen alternatives. This means that there also are no moral proscriptions free of their social context.
These facts have been obscured by consternation about “moral relativity.” Often when someone argues against universal moral precepts the phrase “moral relativism” is thrown out to imply that the argument is unprincipled. The worst part about this critique is that it misunderstands the concept. “Relativity” can only apply to a scheme such that A relates to B, C relates to D, E relates to F, etc. where these relationships are ordered with respect to another; A, B, C, D, E, F, etc. may seem unconnected to one another, except that they can be shown to cohere as a system through these ordered relationships. Einstein’s famous theory of General Relativity, for example, posits that seemingly distorted values in the positions of objects in time and space are, in fact, related to one another in an orderly way according to their mass and velocity (the specifics of the math are, of course, more complicated than this). If we keep an open mind about what values are possible, we can still make sound and principled moral judgements in complicated circumstances.
To get away from an “anything goes” approach, we have to concentrate our attention in several ways. As we’ve said, values necessitate decisions. We can allow a vast array of possible values and social orders to be available to mankind when we zoom out to the level of the species’ entire history past, present and future. But individual people and individual societies, being in time, cannot avail themselves of every possibility; individuals must prioritize and make decisions, and once a decision is made, it limits options downstream. Moral obligations, then, are not about valuing one particular thing over another, but about taking responsibility for the consequences of the choices we’ve made. We can abstract from the moment of decision-making when we consider this problem from a social perspective: social norms create a context that constrains the choices of each person, but confirms the merit of the individual in their identity within the society. This identity, then, primes the individual to take certain conventional responsibilities, once assumed. In this way, questions of value do not devolve into mere path dependencies determined on a moment-by-moment basis.
Despite the power of social norms, human decisions aren’t made by automatons following a social script. Each person has innate attitudes and qualities that position him or her uniquely with respect to the society that person lives in. These attributes do not come from an identity, conferred by society according to its values, biases and preferences, but emanate rather from the character of the person. As such, they are intrinsic. Thus, there can be conflicts between a social ethos and the ethoses of individuals within society. While an identity offers the individual a ready-made moral framework for typical social situations, it is the individual’s conscience that stands for his or her personal ethos against opposition from social norms and expectations, and the individual’s honor as to whether he or she abides by the moral obligations of conscience. We can think of character as being revealed by how a person navigates questions of conscience and identity.
This disjuncture between the individual and society allows for some variation on who takes ultimate responsibility for prioritizing one set of values before another. Do the consequences of our choices belong with the identities that we assume? If so, then conformity to an assigned social role becomes the sole moral imperative for individuals. Or are individuals alone liable for their actions? In this case, adopting a social role itself is a choice, and the constraints of identity becomes a moral consequence of this choice. Often this distinction is not hard-and-fast, and takes into consideration the nuances of the social context and differences among the values in question.
When we step back from particular societies and individual people and look at the full range of possible human values, we should not assume that they are unassorted. The absolutist, of course, wants to assert a hierarchy of values universally valid in all times and places, and we’ve found this position to be untenable; we can, nevertheless, find order among human values on a natural basis. The order we propose is developmental, in a manner not dissimilar to Wilber’s characterization of the Trump phenomenon. Some values are more basic or foundational, such as the need to eat and find shelter, while others follow when basic values are satisfied and the culture or an individual’s abilities have become more sophisticated. Crucially, developmental schemes are not static, but “develop” in time, beginning with the simple and foundational and transforming in steps to forms that are elaborate and specific. This process is not simply accretive, but, rather, when new values emerge, others, which had been widely adopted and accepted, are lost and pushed out of favor. In this way, values are localized, sometimes emergent in time from the character of the varied people living within a society, but also selected according to a particular set of historical circumstances; this localization follows from the evolution of values within a society as time falls forward.
Taken together, this approach rejects any idea that human values are predestined or “constructed.” Rather, values, and their accompanying moral sensibility, emerge in unique combinations in particular societies or individuals against a background of natural possibilities, and, subsequently, evolve according to a natural order and the circumstances of the society in time. A comprehensive list of possible values, their relation to one another, along with a whole developmental history is beyond the scope of this essay, so we won’t attempt to sketch a scheme to cover the whole field. We’re interested in this historical moment, the one where, in 2024, American voters might send Donald Trump back to the White House.
There are plenty of proximate causes for the Trump phenomenon. We would search, instead, for a more fundamental cause, which then regards the MAGA movement as just a recent iteration. In our view, the Industrial Revolution, in all its iterations over the last several centuries, has caused a major shift in the disposition of cultural values and in the most basic social structures, and the paradigm of this change should condition our understanding of Trump’s popularity more than any proximate factor. For our purposes, a few major developments stand out.
The Industrial Revolution has played out in a global matrix of connected societies, whereas, previously, the substantive interactions among countries and cultures were local or regional. By the latter half of the 18th century, European colonialism had created the conditions for unprecedented contact among all areas of the earth, and, perhaps not unexpectedly, it was the societies of these colonial overloads who led the first waves of industrialization. Cultures and social practices have been juxtaposed in ways that were never possible before, and the result is disorienting. The options for individuals in what they can value, and for social groups in how they organize themselves, are no longer limited to variations on recent cultural memory, or comparisons to nearby neighbors – the possibilities of every other person and every other society on earth, present or past, suddenly become available, and this has happened in an atmosphere of economic and material change not seen since the dawn of the Neolithic era. Who knows what is right or wrong? Who knows how to live?
Industrialization puts heavy emphasis on production; agrarian societies were, no doubt, vitally interested in producing goods and services to meet human needs, but modes of production were intrinsically bound up in social relationships, and there was a stronger requirement to ensure a stable hierarchy of social relations. The industrial mode demands more specialization because industrial endeavors are complex and are generally more efficient when individuals can focus on perfecting a smaller set of tasks. It also encourages more social mobility because critical specialized roles are best filled by individuals with unusual talent, irrespective their family’s class. So, while agrarian institutions had a goal of reinforcing social hierarchies as, seemingly, eternal fact, industrial institutions view these hierarchies as the mere outcome of a game whose goal is to eternally grow the rate of production.
The various components of society have differentiated themselves from one another. In agrarian and hunter-gatherer civilizations, different aspects of society were tightly wound together with one another. Political leaders served as central participants in the religious cult; religious ideas gave legitimacy to laws and legal procedures; laws could be strong predicates to family formation; family norms dictated economic roles; the economic system was designed to confirm the legitimacy and eminence of the political leadership. These connections haven’t exactly disappeared in modern contexts, but within industrial societies we carry the expectation that, ideally, each of these domains should operate with sovereignty, with only contingent feedback loops among them. We have discussed this process in other essays, notably The Ineluctable Person, about laws and rights, and in This Is What Happens When You Find A Stranger In The Alps!, a review of Patrick Deneen’s reactionary manifesto, Regime Change. This is also the prime theme of Mark Lilla’s magisterial book, The Stillborn God, where he examines the separation of religion and politics in the European philosophical tradition starting with Hobbes (while his history pre-dates the Industrial Revolution in its first bloom in England, it is proper, we believe, to see in the colonial mercantilism of the 17th century many of the social and cultural developments essential to the technological and economic changes that were soon to follow).
The overall impact to cultural values from these developments has been not so much to alter any particular value as such, or to constrict the menu of values, but to multiply and involute values within social functions, so that the relationship among different values can only be clear when the relationship among different aspects of society are clear. Where the traditions of a single culture would have formerly constrained the individual, now a choice is left as to what should be valued, and what may or may not be moral, and the proof is in the consequences that follow such choices. The new paradigm is not the result of an ideology of modernity, though we are compelled to intellectualize the changes we observe, in their wake – it is a practical and even physical reality, manifesting on its own accord.
The question we have to ask, then, is: how are these relationships among social functions, and among values, made clear? Recall that order among values emerges, cyclically, as a society develops: there must, therefore, be an ordering principle that drives the development of values, and in this process of development such relations may be illuminated. We propose that in each function of society (values, laws, economics, politics, etc.) some component of that function takes a leading role in the dynamism of the whole, and its imperatives organize the feedback cycles that connect that function with other functions. This component must be intrinsic to the social function, and assumes the role of princeps principium: the principle first among equals. Because developmental processes are cyclical – they tend to proceed step-wise through discrete phases – the princeps principium is historically contingent, and is replaced whenever cultural dynamics shift. Without such a leading component, and one that is congruent with larger social and environmental circumstances, the social function falls into disorder and threatens the survival of the society.
Our inquest, at last, narrows. We must define the leading components in different aspects of an industrial society, specifically of the American society who might twice choose a leader as foul as Donald Trump. Consider:
The industrial economy requires: extensive, open markets to spur demand; intensive capital investment to fund complex enterprises; continuous technological innovation; and active fiscal and monetary management by the state. One could call this system “capitalist,” except that the same conditions fundamentally apply to “socialist” or “communist” systems – the difference is the degree of state intervention in capital investments and markets. The emphasis on unending dynamism contrasts much more with the agrarian emphasis on stability. We find it preferable to call such an economy an “industrial” economy, and leave aside bogus theatrics about the probity of “capitalism.”
A successful industrial society is a liberal society. However, we must appreciate that liberalism is mostly a legal standard, not a moral one. Where there is social conflict, it argues for restraint in the use of government or civil intercession at all turns; liberalism anticipates individuals or groups of people having competing interests, which they decide for themselves, and the standard it seeks to enforce is one of fairness, not a preference for some particular set of values. On the other hand, liberalism insists on taking active interventions where there is a “tragedy of the commons” situation; where no one person is responsible for a common good or a common resource, it is imperative that the state step in and administer rules, penalties and coordinated action. This conception of liberalism can be extended past the domain of law to social situations where normative rules are enforceable, usually through interpersonal behavior; such rules, of course, arise out of values and moral judgements, but “liberalism” is about the enforceability of those rules, not the underlying values or mores in and of themselves. In the previously mentioned essay, The Ineluctable Person, we developed several legal concepts that make this doctrine of liberalism more formal. The first is that laws are only applicable to individuals insofar as rights are applicable under the same conditions. In a liberal society, a government musn’t impose laws or enforce behaviors on people where the government doesn’t also recognize certain rights attended by the same circumstances. The converse is also true: an individual does not have any “rights” unless he or she is bound by laws. The second major concept is what we called the neutral subject – laws and rights cannot apply to individuals on the basis of their mere identity, but can only be imposed when the concrete conditions of their stipulations have been factually affirmed. Historically, the social class or political role of an individual has been decisive in determining who may or may not be subject to laws, or possess rights. One of liberalism’s key innovations is to strip social identity of its formal role in a legitimate legal system.
Where liberal institutions have to make positive decisions that affect the commons, they do, in fact, embody specific values. However, because, in an industrial society, diverse values and competing interests are inevitable, contending interests have to be reconciled and accommodated. As we have seen with numerous authoritarian regimes in the last few centuries, where values are inflicted upon a society through raw exercise of power, power becomes the only value that endures. Industrial societies can only maintain functional institutions over a long time if they are democratic. Democracy isn’t just about voting. Majoritarian decisions can be cruel and punitive of minorities, even where the majority is razor thin. The general public can be manipulated by a motivated minority to think and act against what ought to be their interests – much as we are seeing with the MAGA movement. It is not wise to conduct every decision by poll. Likewise, democracy is not a matter of endless institutional process primed to avoid action at the first appearance of resistance; institutions that specialize in this approach are rife with ruinous NIMBYism and inaction by “heckler’s veto.” Democracy means consensus building through rules and the operation of institutions whose power structures are relatively distributed.
Industrial societies have a prime value, and this value is what organizes the various competing interests of individuals and groups of individuals into a coherent social whole. Usually, pluralism is identified as the essential liberal value, but this is not right. It is personal responsibility – responsibility for the consequences of actions should rest alone with the individual choosing them. In order for an industrial economy to provide enduring prosperity, and liberalism to work as a legal doctrine, and democracy as a governing doctrine, individuals have to take full responsibility for their obligations and actions. This means doing certain things conscientiously where one has commitments or needs – show up to work, pay taxes, don’t steal, don’t hit other people, etc.; and it means suffering the consequences of bad choices, intended or unintended – expect to be fired if you don’t show up to work, expect to be fined or prosecuted for not paying taxes, stealing or hitting other people, etc. An ethos of personal responsibility also demands that one not take responsibility where one has no interests and no obligations. One person is not responsible for showing up to his or her neighbor’s job and paying his or her neighbor’s taxes and so forth. To actively try and appropriate from some other person their responsibilities does them moral injury: the other’s fate is not his own, for better or worse, and he can never be whole unto himself. The central gambit of authoritarians is to declare, first, that they have prepotency over what people should and should not value, and, second, that they have the ultimate responsibility over the behavior of their subjects; therefore, they must enforce compliance with whatever amount of violence they deem necessary. There is comfort in being told what to be and what to do for some, and this is the appeal of the MAGA movement and its cousins elsewhere in the world. The rub is that the authoritarian regime, in assuming responsibility for things that citizens should manage themselves, excuses the irresponsible behavior of its leader or leadership class, whose real motivation is self-indulgence. This outcome follows naturally from the prime ethos of an industrialized societies: everyone is expected to take personal responsibility, or the society won’t function properly. In activities like voting, media platforming, hiring for prominent jobs, that is, areas where there can be collective participation in institutions, moral accountability is entirely appropriate, and those who fail at their obligations or who act in bad faith should expect to be marginalized in public life.
The categories we’ve identified here are ideals – societies manifest these things in different ways and to different degrees. Liberal democracy doesn’t happen with the flick of an on/off switch. But conformity with or revolt against such ideals has consequences. Look at a country like Russia: it has a dysfunctional industrial economy, an illiberal legal system, few democratic features in its prime institutions and no apparent ethos of personal responsibility up and down the social hierarchy. Lies are the essence of Russian institutions; their main goal is the subjugation of the Russian people and the country’s neighbors, for no other purpose than the aggrandizement of Vladimir Putin and his small circle of cronies.
The MAGA movement promises many things: a booming economy, a revival of Christianity, vindication for the downtrodden and dispossessed. But its end-state, if its agenda is pursued unfettered, unresisted, will be no different than Putin’s Russia at its most debased. Such reactionary promises are willful fantasies. All of this can be predicted directly from Donald Trump’s character, black and evil as tar, but even more, now, as he tries to run again for President, under indictment and the record of an insurrection and a badly managed first term, it can be anticipated because Trump and his lackeys tell us exactly what they intend. A few examples: in late 2022, Trump called for the “termination” of the Constitution; recently at rallies, he talks about becoming a dictator, as if joking, but not really; the Heritage Foundation has cooked up a plan, called “Project 2025,” to replace much of the federal bureaucracy with partisan hacks, and put soldiers on American streets by invoking the Insurrection Act. The idea that American institutions and the way of life that they warrant will thrive, or even survive, in the teeth such an assault is just another willful fantasy. Every other value will be degraded if citizens do not see it as their personal responsibility to prevent the looming authoritarian takeover.
This responsibility is not an abstraction. Starting in January there will be a series of primaries for the upcoming Presidential election. Trump is likely to win the nomination for the Republican side, although Nikki Haley has a long shot chance to beat him; the outcome should be fixed, in any case, by Super Tuesday, March 5th. Joe Biden doesn’t have any serious challengers on the Democratic side, and so he will be the nominee for the Democratic Party. There’s a worse-than-even chance that Trump will be disqualified for the ballot by the Federal Supreme Court, following the Colorado Supreme Court’s recent conclusion that he should be disqualified under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. If he isn’t, and neither of the lead candidates dies or is incapacitated, America will vote for a Biden/Trump re-match. Because of the Electoral College, the election will not be decided by a national vote tally (which Biden would likely win), but only by voters in swing states – a majority in each state. No third parties are going to win the election, and third-party candidates in swing states are more likely to take votes from Biden than Trump. Therefore, there is something that most Americans over the age of 18 can do: vote. Vote for Joe Biden. Vote against MAGA candidates down the ballot. These actions, specifically, are moral imperatives that outweigh all other considerations.
Many in this country want to resist the reality of this choice and its meaning. Some actively want Trump. Some pretend that the moral high-ground is to vote for other candidates, or not vote at all, motivated as they are by grievances or misapprehensions or apathy. Some are angry at being confronted with these moral certainties. The choice to abdicate responsibility may have devastating consequences, but, regardless of the outcome for the country, should Trump lose, or die, or be disqualified from the ballot, the choice each person makes will have spiritual consequences for that person, and for everyone else.
My mind wanders to a scene in the TV show The Sopranos when I reflect on Trump’s reelection campaign. For the uninitiated, The Sopranos follows a leader of the New Jersey mafia, Tony Soprano, in his efforts to navigate career, family and his own emotional hang-ups.
In season 3, episode 7, entitled “Second Opinion,” Tony’s wife, Carmela, is struggling with their marriage and thinking about divorce. Her primary problem is that Tony cheats on her, but, being a devout Catholic, she also has doubts about his employment as a mafioso. From the first episode Tony has been seeing a therapist, and when Carmela seeks out a therapy session of her own, Tony’s psychiatrist refers to an older Jewish colleague, Dr. Krakower. It is worth printing the text in full:
Carmela: Everybody’s marriage has problems.
Dr. Krakower: Is he seeing another woman?
Carmela: You can make that plural. He sees other women. I sort of look the other way. I want to help him.
Dr. Krakower: Do you? Moments ago you used the word “divorce.”
Carmela: I said I was considering divorce. I may be overstepping my boundaries here, but you are Jewish, aren’t you?
Dr. Krakower: Is that relevant?
Carmela: Us Catholics, we place a great deal of stock in the sanctity of the family. And I am not sure that your people…
Dr. Krakower: I’ve been married for 31 years.
Carmela: Then you know how difficult it can be. He’s a good man, he’s a good father.
Dr. Krakower: You tell me he’s a depressed criminal. Prone to anger. Serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man?
Carmela: I thought psychiatrists weren’t supposed to be judgmental.
Dr. Krakower: Many patients want to be excused for their current predicament because of events that occurred in their childhood. That’s what psychiatry has become in America. Visit any shopping mall or ethnic pride parade and witness the results.
Carmela: What we say in here stays in here, right?
Dr. Krakower: By ethical code and by law.
Carmela: His crimes … they are … organized crime.
Dr. Krakower: The mafia!
Carmela: [Gasps] Oh Jesus. So what! So what. He betrays me, every week with these whores.
Dr. Krakower: Probably the least of his misdeeds.
[Carmela gets up to leave.]
Dr. Krakower: You can leave now or you can stay and hear what I have to say.
Carmela: Well, you’re going to charge the same anyway.
Dr. Krakower: I won’t take your money.
Carmela: That’s a new one.
Dr. Krakower: You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. Never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about. As long as you’re his accomplice.
Carmela: You’re wrong about the accomplice part though.
Dr. Krakower: Are you sure?
Carmela: All I do is make sure he’s got clean clothes in his closet and dinner on his table.
Dr. Krakower: So enabler would be a more accurate job description for you than accomplice. My apologies.
Carmela: So. You think I need to, ah, define my boundaries more clearly and keep a certain distance. Not internalize my …
Dr. Krakower: What did I just say?
Carmela: Leave him.
Dr. Krakower: Take only the children—what’s left of them—and go.
Carmela: My priest said I should try and work with him. Help him to be a better man.
Dr. Krakower: How’s that going?
Carmela: I …
Dr. Krakower: Have you ever read “Crime and Punishment”? Dostoyevsky?
[Carmela shakes her head “no.”]
Dr. Krakower: It’s not an easy read. It’s about guilt and redemption. And I think while [sic] your husband to turn himself in, read this book and reflect on his crimes every day for seven years in his cell—then he might be redeemed.
Carmela: I would have to … get a lawyer, find an apartment. Arrange for child support.
Dr. Krakower: You’re not listening. I’m not charging you because I won’t take blood money. And you can’t either. One thing you can never say. That you haven’t been told.
Carmela: I see. You’re right, I see.
Dr. Krakower is played by veteran character actor, Sully Boyar, in his only appearance on the show. Boyar sadly died two weeks before this episode aired in April 2001, at the age of 77. His portrayal is remarkable. He speaks with authority, earned by a lifetime of experience, and offers not platitudes or equivocations or succor, but sharp moral clarity. And yet, he does it without tendention or threats or personalizing emotion. His performance and what his character says makes this scene possibly the most important of the whole series. Tony is a violent man who, along with confederates and henchmen, destroys numerous lives while contributing nothing to the public good. He loves his family and is capable of moments of tenderness and fellowship, but scratch the surface and he proves a person who is supremely childish, impulsive, narcissistic and amoral. The doctor makes clear to Carmela that to be seduced by his charisma or by the stories she constructs for herself such that she accommodates his wicked behavior as if she had no choice in the matter – this would be a lie, and one that implicates her fully in the same wickedness.
In 2024, America will be morally tested. The consequences of this choice, should we fail this test, are uncertain. Should we be forced to experience the worst possible outcomes, we will tremble in pain, but so too will each soul be scarred should we yet be spared in spite of ourselves. Whatever happens, my fellow citizens – one thing you never can say. That you haven’t been told.